The prisoner-abuse scandal at home

The stories sound familiar: Muslim prisoners beaten and sexually humiliated by American guards. But it happened in Brooklyn, not Baghdad.

Topics: Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, 9/11,

The prisoner-abuse scandal at home

The American guards took Mohamed Maddy’s glasses before they slammed him into the wall. A portly middle-aged father of two, Maddy was crying, trying to move his shoulder in front of him so it would take the blow, but they kept smashing him into the concrete, leaving him with dark purple bruises. Then they told him to strip, and when he balked at removing his underwear — “I am Muslim, I can’t do it,” he said — they screamed, “Fucking Muslim! Take them off!”

They made him bend over and said, “Take your hand and open your ass.” He sobbed harder as they performed a cavity search. Afterward, they told him to get dressed and put him in handcuffs and leg irons connected by a chain to his waist. They ordered him to run and then stepped on his leg chain so he’d fall down, only to be yanked back up and forced to run again, over and over. Without his glasses, Maddy couldn’t see where he was going, but he thinks he was running in circles.

Finally he was thrown in a cell. For the first month, the light was left on 24 hours a day. If he tried to shield his eyes and snatch a moment of sleep, the guards would kick the doors. On the rare occasions when he was taken out, he was strip-searched, often twice in the same day, even if he hadn’t been out of the guards’ sight. Sometimes they did the searches in public. Sometimes they laughed and jeered. An official report later concluded that many of these searches had nothing to do with safety — they were about punishment and humiliation.

Stories like Maddy’s have lately been pouring out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but he’s never been to those countries. Maddy’s ordeal took place at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where 84 of the 762 Muslim immigrants who were detained after Sept. 11 were held. The torture there wasn’t nearly as severe as it was at Abu Ghraib, and, according to recent reports, at Guantánamo in Cuba. But there are striking similarities, suggesting that what happened in Iraq may be an escalation of a pattern of human rights violations that began almost as soon as the World Trade Center crumbled.

In April 2003, as the war in Iraq dominated the headlines, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General issued a 239-page report titled “The September 11 Detainees: A Review of the Treatment of Aliens Held on Immigration Charges in Connection with the Investigation of the September 11 Attacks.” Then, in December, the Inspector General’s Office issued a supplemental 49-page report detailing abuses at the Metropolitan Detention Center, where Maddy was held. In its May 24 issue, Newsweek revealed that attorneys for two detainees are pressing to release 300 hours of videotape that captured the abuses — tapes that were cited in the reports on the detention center, but that have never been made public.

As the reports document, prisoners being held at MDC in connection with Sept. 11 were regularly stripped and sexually humiliated. Prolonged sleep deprivation was common. Guards regularly slammed inmates against walls. Several detainees claimed they were also punched and kicked. In Passaic County Jail, prisoners were menaced with dogs. At several prisons, people were put in solitary confinement for weeks or even months. They were denied access to visitors. Many were never charged with any crime.

The reports paint a picture of mass roundups conducted without probable cause, followed by “prolonged confinement for many detainees, sometimes under extremely harsh conditions.” It lists some of the rather specious justifications given for classifying people as Sept. 11 detainees. One man was “arrested, detained on immigration charges, and treated as a September 11 detainee because a person called the FBI to report that the [redacted] grocery store in which the alien worked, is operated by numerous Middle Eastern men, 24 hrs — 7 days a week. Each shift daily has 2 or 3 men … Store was closed day after crash, reopened days and evenings. Then later on opened during midnight hours. Too many people to run a small store.”

Something similar seems to have happened in Iraq, where the Red Cross estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of the inmates at Abu Ghraib were innocent. On May 5, a U.N. working group on arbitrary detention issued a statement saying, “According to the information received by the Working Group, the majority of persons in detention in Iraq have been arrested during public demonstrations, at checkpoints and in house raids. They are being considered ‘security detainees’ or ‘suspected of anti-Coalition activities’. The Working Group’s Chairperson-Rapporteur is seriously disturbed by the fact that these persons have not been granted access to a court to be able to challenge the lawfulness of their detention, as required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Policies of arbitrary detention often lead to coercive interrogation and abuse, says David Cole, professor of law at Georgetown University and author of “Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism.” In both America and Iraq, he says, “the approach was to sweep broadly, to pick people up on little or no evidence other than their religious or ethnic identity. That process puts a premium on interrogation because the whole idea is that we don’t know who the bad guys are, so your job as an interrogator is to find out who they are through interrogation. When they say we don’t know anything about it, it’s going to put pressure on interrogators to use coercive methods. Anytime you abandon the presumption of innocence and adopt a broad, sweeping detention policy, it’s going to lead to questionable interrogation tactics.”

It’s not clear whether the guards in Brooklyn and those in Baghdad adopted similar tactics independently, or whether they were acting under similar orders. As Seymour Hersh has reported in the New Yorker, the Defense Department authorized policies in Guantánamo and Iraq that were designed to enable interrogations. According to Hersh, they included sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, “exposure to extremes of cold and heat, and placing prisoners in ‘stress positions’ for agonizing lengths of time.”

Milder versions of these methods were employed at MDC, but there’s no evidence that guards there were acting under orders from federal officials. Still, says Cole, “[R]eports of [abuse] are so consistent among domestic detainees that it seems it must have been a policy choice. Assuming the best of the policy makers, would assume they’re doing it for interrogation purposes.”

Regardless of who ordered the abuse, prison officials were operating under loosened legal constraints that encouraged mistreatment. “There was a perception of guilt imposed in both cases,” says Nancy Chang, senior litigation attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Those detained in America, like those in Guantánamo and Iraq, “were abused as enemy combatants or potential enemy combatants. They were treated quite differently from regular prisoners. They were placed under the most extreme conditions of confinement without any prior determination that they posed a danger.”

In both the United States and Iraq, the tactics were similar, even if the severity was not.

Images of the abuse at Abu Ghraib have forced Mohamed Maddy to relive the eight months he spent in American prisons, and especially the months he spent at the special housing unit at the Metropolitan Detention Center. “I can see that it is almost the same,” he writes in an e-mail from Cairo, where he’s lived with his two sons since being deported in May 2002. “[W]e were all pushed viciously against the wall, hands tied behind back, chains on both legs, lots of hits on the face and the rest of the body, severe humiliation like I never saw before, they were cursing us almost every minute of the day and prevented us from sleeping. In brief, the treatment was very inhuman and against all human rights and ethics.”

Of course, this may sound like the hyperbole of a traumatized man, but the inspector general’s report on conditions at MDC confirm most of what he says. “[W]e concluded that it was inappropriate for staff members in the ADMAX SHU [Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit] to routinely film strip searches showing the detainees naked, and that on occasion staff members inappropriately used strip searches to intimidate and punish detainees,” the report says. It cites videotapes of the strip searches in which the voices of female officers can clearly be heard, confirming detainees’ reports that they were stripped in front of women. On some tapes, the report says, “staff members laughed, exchanged suggestive looks and made funny noises before and during strip searches.”

The report also found evidence of routine physical abuse. “[W]e concluded, based on videotape evidence, detainees’ statements, witnesses’ observations, and staff members who corroborated some allegations of abuse, that some MDC staff members slammed and bounced detainees into the walls at the MDC and inappropriately pressed detainees’ heads against walls,” the report says. “We also found that some officers inappropriately twisted and bent detainees’ arms, hands, wrists, and fingers, and caused them unnecessary physical pain; inappropriately carried or lifted detainees; and raised or pulled detainees’ arms in painful ways. In addition, we believe some officers improperly used handcuffs, occasionally stepped on compliant detainees’ leg restraint chains, and were needlessly forceful and rough with the detainees — all conduct that violates [Bureau of Prisons] policy.”

There were also numerous reports that, in addition to the lights being left on in the cell for 24 hours a day, officers went out of their way to keep detainees awake. “For example, one detainee claimed that officers kicked the doors non-stop in order to keep the detainees from sleeping,” the inspector general’s report says. “He stated that for the first two or three weeks he was at the MDC, one of the officers walked by about every 15 minutes throughout the night, kicked the doors to wake up the detainees, and yelled things such as, ‘Motherfuckers,’ ‘Assholes,’ and ‘Welcome to America.’ … Another detainee said that officers would not let the detainees sleep during the day or night from the time he arrived at the MDC in the beginning of October through mid-November 2001.”

Almost all the 9/11 prisoners at MDC were being held for interrogation, not because police had any evidence connecting them to terrorism. Maddy was one of the few in the unit who had actually committed a crime — while working for a passenger services company at JFK airport, he had smuggled his wife and sons into the country.

Today, Maddy lives in a cacophonous Cairo suburb where car horns compete with mournful Arab pop singers and small boys driving donkey carts clatter down dusty side streets. He’s a hospitable man who cooks me a dinner of grilled chicken and Greek salad while his teenage sons, Eslam and Karim, play a James Bond video game on their Xbox and listen to the soundtrack from Eminem’s “8 Mile.” Friendly as he is, though, he can’t hide a sadness that’s made him lose interest in everything in the world except his boys and his misfortunes.

In prison, he was questioned “six, seven or eight times,” he says, usually about how often he went to the mosque and whether he knows any “bad people in the USA.” Not being a radical man — he has a picture of Bill Clinton hanging on the wall of his Cairo apartment — he was little help. “I tell them the truth, but they say, ‘You are liar,’” he says.

Indeed, several detainees say it was their professions of innocence that led to weeks of solitary confinement and other torments.

Khaled Betar, 34, is a happy-go-lucky blue-eyed bachelor from Amman, Jordan, whose friends know him as a bit of a womanizer. Radical Islam holds no attraction for him — he’s an agnostic who tends to see both his Arab and Muslim identity as an accident of birth. The first time he prayed to Allah was when he was thrown in prison by FBI agents who accused him of membership in al-Qaida.

Before arriving in America, Betar spent time working in both South Africa and Hamburg, Germany. He traveled to America in April 2001 for the same reason many immigrants do — to earn money. A Jordanian family he knew owned a gas station in Stony Point, N.Y., and they gave him a job that paid around $2,000 a month — nearly 10 times what he could make at home.

Betar had a six-month tourist visa that was still valid in late September 2001, when FBI agents showed up at his apartment to question him. “They asked me if I know any people who give speeches in the mosque, if I’m religious or not,” he says. “They spoke to me for, like, half an hour and they asked me about my passport. I showed them my visa.” The visa would expire in a week.

Knowing that, the agents waited 10 days before visiting Betar again. When they returned, there were two immigration agents with them. “They told me, your visa expired and you have to go with us to the detention,” he says.

Betar would spend the next nine months in Passaic County Jail, where he was held as a material witness to the Sept. 11 attacks. “He was never charged with terrorism, never charged with being a threat to national security,” says his attorney, Sin Yen Ling of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “There were never any formal charges.”

But there were many interrogations. Seven of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers spent time in Hamburg, a city with a Muslim population of 130,000. Betar had lived there, too, and investigators were convinced there was a connection.

During his first interview, there were four FBI agents. They showed him pictures of some of the hijackers, and asked if he knew them. “They told me one of the hijackers was in Germany,” he says. “They said, ‘How come you are Muslim and you don’t know this guy?’ That’s what they told me! I told them, man, I can’t know every Muslim!”

A few weeks later, the agents asked him if he would take a polygraph. He readily agreed, but after hours of questioning, he was told that he failed (he’s never seen the transcript, and it wasn’t given to his attorney). Several days later, he was given a second polygraph. Again, he was told that he failed, and he was taken to the hole. The guard told Betar he was acting on the FBI’s orders.

“I was in a small cell. It’s closed. There was an iron bed and mattress and blanket, that’s all that you have. I stayed there 24 days. All the time, they keep the light on. Every day they came with dogs. The dogs made noise. Every day they took me from the room to search me. I’m in the room, how can I get anything?”

When he returned to the prison’s general population after 24 days, “It was like a paradise for me,” he says. “You can’t imagine. The hole is terrible. It was the worst 24 days of my life. They make you crazy, really.”

There was pressure, he says, to admit to some role in Sept. 11. “They just want me to say I know one of these people,” he says. “They want anybody. If you are innocent, it doesn’t matter for them. They just want to put anybody in the jail, to show people that they are working. If this happened in Syria, Iraq, it’s normal, but in America it’s different, really.”

Eventually, though, the FBI cleared Betar of any terrorist ties, and he was deported back to Jordan.

A resilient man, Betar seems to have largely put his ordeal behind him. “Now, I’m all right,” he says in Amman, where he and a friend have started a business selling nuts. “Sometimes you remember, you get depressed, but I’m normal now. I’m OK.”

Maddy, who’s found a job as an Internet marketing manager for a Cairo tourism company, hasn’t done as well. He has memory lapses and trouble concentrating. “Sometimes at my job, it goes in my mind, everything that happened in the USA. I get nervous and have to leave what I’m doing. Never I forget. Everything’s like videotape. I remember even when I’m sleeping. I don’t feel safe when I’m sleeping. I don’t feel good about my life.” He wants to sue the Justice Department, but knows little about the American legal system, and isn’t sure where to look for a lawyer to represent him pro bono.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, something further seemed to break in him. Shortly after the first pictures of U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqis were published, he fired off an uncharacteristic message full of profanity and rage. “How much the American people hate the Muslim people!” he writes. “[W]e hate the stupid Bush and I will be happy when he go to the hell in November and I want tell him go, not come back. Fuck you Bush and your government.”

Two days later, he was mortified by his outburst. “I would like to express my apology for using an inappropriate language, but I have bitter feelings that squeeze my heart and soul,” he writes in a second e-mail. “It sounds like it is a policy for the American government to treat Arabs, especially Muslims, as bad as they can, and it is totally untrue that the behavior was individual incidents carried [out] by several guards.”

“What I have saw with the Iraqi people made me feel very sick. It was really disgusting and made me review all that happened to me,” he says.

Maddy wasn’t terribly religious before, but in prison he moved closer to God, he says. Now, he fantasizes about suing the United States for what it put him through, and using the money to build a big mosque, white, with a green light shining from the minaret.

But first, he says, “I will give some money to my sons, so they don’t need to go to the USA.”

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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